Apostasy in Islam
Arguments for and against the death penalty
Traditional treatment of apostates according to Shari'a law:
Islam teaches that a newborn has an innate ability to know and believe in
his creator, and to understand good and evil. Muhammad (pbuh) stated:
"Every child is born with the believing nature...it is his parents who
make him into a Jew or a Christian." There is to be no force used to
convert a non-believer to Islam. The Qur'ăn, quoted
previously, prohibits the use
of compulsion to force a person or a society to accept Islam.
However, once a person freely "enters into the fold of Islam, the
rules change." 1 The word "Islam" means "submission
to the will of God." The Qur'ăn says that: "No believing man and no
believing woman has a choice in their own affairs when Allăh and His
Messenger have decided on an issue." (33:36) On the issue of apostasy,
"Islam clearly says: No! You cannot become an apostate." 1
Apostasy is viewed as a form of treason.
In many predominately Muslim countries, the punishment for apostasy is
Assuming that the individual:
||Was a Muslim
||Openly rejects Islam,
||Has made this decision freely and without coercion,
||Is aware of the nature of his/her statements, and
||Is an adult. then the penalty prescribed by Shari'a (Islamic) law is execution for men and
life imprisonment for women. Drunkards and mentally ill persons are excluded
from this punishment because they are considered to be not responsible for
A person born of a Muslim parent who later rejects Islam is called a "Murtad
Fitri" (Apostate - natural). This is viewed a treason against God. They
are given a second chance. If they repent of their decision, they will be
released. A person who converted to Islam and later rejected the religion is
a "Murtad Milli" (apostate - from the community.) This is viewed as
treason against the community. Male apostates are executed even if they
repent. Female apostates are released from imprisonment if they repent.
||If either spouse apostatize from Islam, a divorce is automatic.
||If both apostatize they are generally allowed to stay married.
||An under-aged male is imprisoned, and only executed if he remains an
apostate when he becomes of age.
||The will of a male apostate is not valid.
||A female apostate's will remains valid.
||In the rare instances when an apostate is executed, it is
traditionally done by severing his neck with a sword.
||Among Malikites, Shafi'ites, and Hanbalites, adult women receive the
same penalty as men: execution.
||The Shi'ite schools of law allow for Islamic law towards apostates to
be applied in non-Muslim countries. The majority "Sunnites do not believe in
extraterritorial jurisdiction." 1
Justification for the death penalty is mainly based on two Hadith texts:
||"Whoever changes his religion shall be killed." (Abu Dawud)
||"It is not lawful to kill a man who is a Muslim except for one of the
three reasons: Kufr (disbelief) after accepting Islam....." (Abu Dawud).
Arguments against the death penalty for apostates:
This is an alternative belief heard increasingly within Islam: that religious freedom
and the absence of compulsion in religion requires that individuals be
allowed adopt a religion or to convert to another religion without legal
penalty. Of course, whether a person who leaves Islam can be expected to be
free of condemnation from their family and neighbors is a different matter.
One group promoting this belief is Sisters in Islam (SIS), "a
group of Muslim professional women committed to promoting the rights of
women within the framework of Islam." 2 They claim
that the death penalty is not an appropriate response to apostasy:
||The former Chief Justice of Pakistan, SA Rahman, has written that
there is no reference to the death penalty in any of the 20 instances of
apostasy mentioned in the Qur'an. 3|
||The quotation from Surah An-Nisa', 4:137, shown at the top of this
essay, seems to imply
that multiple, sequential apostasies are possible. That would not be
possible if the person were executed after the first apostasy.|
||Muslims who support the death penalty for apostasy often base their
belief partly on a hadith in which he
said: "Kill whoever changes his religion." But this is a weak
||This hadith was only transmitted from Muhammad (pbuh) by one
individual. It was not confirmed by a second person. According to
Islamic law, this is insufficient basis on which to impose the death
||The hadith is so generally worded that it would require the death
penalty for a Christian or Jew who converted to Islam. This is obviously
not the prophet's intent. The hadith is in need of further specification, which has not
||Many scholars interpret this passage as referring only to instances of
high treason. (e.g. declaring war on Islam, Muhammad (pbuh), God, etc.)
||There is no historical record which indicates that Muhammad (pbuh)
or any of his companions ever sentenced anyone to death for apostasy.
||A number of Islamic scholars from past centuries, Ibrahim al-Naka'I,
Sufyan al-Thawri, Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi, Abul Walid al-Baji and Ibn
Taymiyyah, have all held that apostasy is a serious sin, but not one
that requires the death penalty. In modern times, Mahmud Shaltut, Sheikh
of al-Azhar, and Dr Mohammed Sayed Tantawi have concurred.
||Dr. Maher Hathout, author of "In Pursuit of Justice: The
Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam," writes: |
"We strongly oppose the state's use of coercion in regulating Islamic
belief in such a manner, since faith is a matter of individual choice on which
only God can adjudicate."
Referring to the two hadiths traditionally used to justify the death
penalty, Hathout writes:
"...both of them contradict the Quran and other instances in
which the Prophet did not compel anyone to embrace Islam, nor punish
them if they recanted."
"In one incident, the Prophet pardoned Abdullah bin Sa'd, after he
renounced Islam. Abdullah bin Sa'd was one of the people chosen by
the Prophet as a scribe, to write down Qur'anic text as it was
revealed to the Prophet. After spending some time with the Muslims
in Madina, he recanted and returned to the religion of the Quraish.
When he was brought before the Prophet, Osman bin Affan pleaded on
his behalf, and the Prophet subsequently pardoned Abdullah bin Sa'd
"The problem with the argument for punishment for apostasy is that
it cannot be applied in any Islamic state without giving rise to the
potential for abuse by the state itself. Erroneously equating moral
with political power in the determination of law has led to the
political repression that we see in Islamic countries today. We must
separate the right of God from that of man in defining freedom of
religion as a legal right. The right of God refers only to the moral
obligations of Muslims towards God, and is adjudicated by God. The
state cannot act as a coercive moral authority, in effect
representing God's Will on earth, because it does not have the right
to do so. In the context of freedom of religion, the state's
responsibility is to uphold and protect it as the right of all
humans, as granted by God, without exercising moral judgment on the
content and/or manner of exercising those religious beliefs." 4,5
||Dr. T. O.Shanavas writes on the Toledo
"The Qur'an states:
'A section of the People of the Book say:
'Believe in the morning what is revealed to the believers, Bur
reject it at the end of the day; perchance they may (themselves)
turn back.' [3:72] "
"A section of People of the Book used a tactic to
create doubt among the Muslims in the hope that some of them might
thereby be beguiled into repudiating Islam. How could it be possible for
non-Muslims to have enacted this plan to entice Muslims to believe one
day and reject next, if death was the penalty for apostasy? ... The
Qur’an does not rule to kill the apostates."
"Abdullah b.Ubayy b.Salul was the leader of the munafiqun (hypocrites).
But Prophet (s) took no action against him. Prophet prayed for him and
stayed at the grave until he was buried. Those fanatics among us must
explain the reason for Prophet (s) not executing the known hypocrites
like Abdullah b.Ubayy. Ubbay lived until death plotting to destroy Islam
and Prophet knew it. He was not executed for apostasy. This suggests
that apostasy law is not a divine law but interpolation by fanatics
among us. ..."
"The Qur'an states:
'How shall God guide those who reject Faith
after they accepted it and bore witness that the apostle was true
and that clear signs had come unto them? But God guides not a people
unjust. Of such the reward is that on them (rests) the curse of the
God, of His Angels, and of all mankind;--In that will they dwell;
nor will their penalty be lightened, nor respite be their
lot;--except for those that repent (even) after that, make amends;
For verily God is oft-forgiving, most merciful'. [3:86-89]"
"It is obvious from these verses that no
punishment is to be inflicted by one man or another for apostasy. By no
stretch of the imagination can the phrase, "curse of Allah," be
interpreted to be a license to murder anyone who he considers to be an
apostate. If any such commandment was prescribed it would have been
clearly defined as all other punishments are in the Holy Qur'an." 6
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi, "Apostacy (Irtidad) in
"Islam, Apostasy and PAS," 1999-JUL-22, at:
S.A. Rahman, "Punishment of apostasy in Islam," Kazi Publ., (1986).
Limited availabililty from Amazon.com online book store
Maher Hathout, "In Pursuit of
Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam."
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
"Freedom of Religion," Chapter 6 from the book "In
Pursuit of Justice." Online at:
Dr. T. O. Shanavas, "Apostacy in Islam: through the eyes of a former
apostate," Toledo Muslims, at:
Copyright © 2001 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2001-AUG-6
Latest update: 2007-DEC-17
Author: B.A. Robinson